At the Table: Great Wall in Schenectady falls flat on flavor

Crab Rangoon at Great Wall. (Beverly M. Elander)

Crab Rangoon at Great Wall. (Beverly M. Elander)

Neither a dark nor stormy night, but it was an unpleasant Friday afternoon. And the forecast promised frigid weather for the next several days.

We had received an ad in our mail, a menu for a Chinese restaurant. I wasn’t sure if the venue was new or the menu was new or the establishment had been renovated and under new management. What we did know was that it was cold and nobody was cooking or even going out for pickup.

According to their flyer, the mysterious Great Wall would be delivered via Grubhub (software for ordering via Menufy), and it was indeed a night for delivery. After choosing items from the printed menu, Dinner Mate transferred our choices to Great Wall’s website. He received three texts about the delivery, the last of which signaled the delivery’s arrival at the door. A printout for our order and details was available within minutes of the ordering process itself.

Items were available in all the usual categories, and I saw nothing that distinguished Great Wall’s menu from most other Chinese menus. We ordered soup, two appetizers and an entree each.

I’ve never been fond of crab rangoon (10 for $5.25 at Great Wall), but the one I tasted from my guest’s order was excellent in both appearance and flavor. It looked like a dicot (four-petaled) flower with a central small mound of cream cheese, crab, scallions, garlic and soy (or similar) sauce stuffed delicately in a wonton wrapper and either deep-fried or baked to crispness. After cooking, they are generally dipped in some kind of sauce, but those made at Great Wall had duck sauce inside the wonton wrapper with the cream cheese filling. Guest was less enamored of the appetizer than I was.

We often order fried chicken wings from our go-to Chinese restaurant and wanted to compare the Wall’s wings with what we’re used to. Four healthy-sized plain wings were $5.15, and had been deep-fried to near dryness. They did not measure up to the wings to which we are accustomed.

I had ordered the barbecue spare ribs ($12.75 for eight large pieces). But I’m guessing they had been subjected to heat over a lengthy period of time, causing the meat to dry out and become hard, tough and tasteless.

Although hot and sour soup ($5.35/quart) is also among our favorites, it followed the trend we had observed with the ribs and wings. In the case of the soup, the ingredients were acceptable, but the pH was too low. The soup was too sour, as if the chef had dumped vinegar in the pot at the end of its cooking.

Neither entree measured up to our expectations. Dinner Mate’s Happy Family ($14.45) featured Cantonese, Hunan and Szechuan dishes with lobster meat, crabmeat, jumbo shrimp, roast pork, beef, sliced chicken and mixed Chinese vegetables with traditional brown sauce. When I asked him about his take on the (un)Happy Family, he had difficulty. Rather than giving the dish character, he said, the number of ingredients camouflaged its potential uniqueness. He located a piece of real lobster, but the crab was the common imitation made from pollock. Lastly, the shrimp were medium-sized at best — not even close to the “jumbo” described on the menu.

I was curious about the origin of the name of my entree. Who was General Tso? And why was the dish named for him? The simplest but probably least accurate explanation was that that the preparation was named for a 19th-century Hunan military man who is said to have enjoyed eating it. But the real story involved a 20th-century chef who cooked General Tso’s chicken in the 1950s, not because it originated in Hunan, but because it exhibited the Hunanese food characteristics of sour, hot, salty and heavy.

Unfortunately, the Americanization of Tso’s chicken caused it to evolve into a sweeter, sticky dish. The serving from Great Wall included crisp-tender broccoli and stir-fried rice, but I think I would have preferred the lighter, plain white rice to keep the meal from being too rich.

Napkin Notes

It should be noted that cream cheese — like other cheese — is mostly nonexistent in southeast Asian and Chinese cuisine, so it is unlikely that crab rangoon originated in this area. Crab rangoon made its debut around 1956 at Trader Vic’s in San Francisco, “invented” by its founder, Victor Bergeron.

Great Wall Restaurant

WHERE: Crosstown Plaza, 2330 Watt St. and Route 7, Schenectady, 12304; 518-377-0853 or 517-377-0854;

WHEN: Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday,11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; closed Sunday

HOW MUCH: $51.45 without tax, tip or delivery

MORE INFO: Large parking area, handicapped accessible, credit cards, takeout, delivery using online ordering, coupons

Categories: Food

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